Is it unusual for a family to stay so anchored to one place? It is not uncommon for the big landowning families with large stately homes to live in the same place for hundreds of years. Because such families usually have lots of family documents, it is also easy to trace their history. The Fulfords of Great Fulford are a good example. They have been at Great Fulford since the 1100s and still live in the huge Tudor mansion built there by their forebears. It is far more unusual for yeoman farming families to have such a long history in the same place. For instance, only about a quarter of the names mentioned in the 1660 poll tax records for Cheriton Bishop were still represented in the parish at the time of the 1821 census, 160 years later. Devon yeomen families probably did not move far, but there was often a process of gradual drift to nearby areas as new and better farms were acquired in neighbouring parishes through purchase or marriage. A typical example is the move of George Lambert (1763-1837) to Spreyton, five miles from Cheriton Bishop, when he inherited property there from his mother’s family, she being from Spreyton (his descendant, Michael Lambert (1912-1999) was fond of saying that his branch of the family appeared to have moved only five miles in a thousand years). There are a few families who rival the Gorwyn immobility – although Professor Hoskins, the main 20th century historian of Devon, quotes the example of the Reddaway family on the farm of Reddaway in Sampford Courtenay who were already there in 1242 and were still there 700 years later1, one better than the Gorwyns, who may have stayed in the same village but gave up their original eponymous farm in the 17th century, even if it was only to move to neighbouring farm of Lambert. So yes, we are an unusual family.


   There are other unusual features about the Gorwyns and Lambert Gorwyns. One is that, numerically, they dominated their village for so many centuries. We know that they were the biggest family by 1524 and their domination may have started well before that. There are other Devon villages with similarly dominant families and (as suggested above) one theory is that these are the families that survived the Black Death when other families were wiped out.


   Another unusual feature is that very few Gorwyns seem either to have slid very far down the social scale or to have moved up it. Most seem to have maintained their status as farmers in charge of their own farms. At the same time, they were at several times in their history big enough landowners to have been able to have made the jump to the squirearchy and real wealth (as for instance the Fulfords of Great Fulford in neighbouring Dunsford did, from a base little different from that of the Gorwyns in the 1300s), but they never seem quite to have done so. Nor did they seem to want to try out pastures new. The Treble family, who took their name from the neighbouring farm of Treable about the same time as the Gorwyns came into existence and who were probably of equivalent social status in the 1200s and 1300s, had by the 1400s spread to a number of other areas (including Somerset and Cornwall) and become members of Parliament, Rectors and even in one case an early fellow of All Souls. The Gorwyns were by these standards a thoroughly unenterprising lot, straying only a few miles from their original parish and only in a very few cases doing anything other than farm. But that they seem to have done remarkably well, as the evidence is that almost throughout their 600-700 year history in Cheriton Bishop and neighbouring parishes they were collectively among the wealthiest families of the area, almost always having enough land and money to ensure that all their sons could continue as successful yeoman farmers.


   The 19th and 20th century diaspora transformed the fortunes of the family, as it did so many other rural families. Now we are spread all over the world, engaged in many different and varied professions. Is there still a common thread that binds us altogether? Clearly there is our common history, our stay-at-home and sometimes rackety and obstinate ancestors who nevertheless always maintained enough enterprise (and bred freely enough) to maintain their position as generally successful yeoman farmers – effectively small businessmen – in their own corner of Devon through so many centuries. Their genes are now much diluted, but it would be nice, if no doubt unduly fanciful, to think that some of their spirit of enterprise has passed on to all of us, their descendants.







1Devon and its People, 1959.   


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